VATICAN CITY, December 25, 2010 (AFP) – Fresh attacks on Christians marred the Christmas holiday Saturday as Pope Benedict XVI led pleas by religious leaders for an end to persecution in Iraq and peace in the Middle East.

While record crowds flocked to Bethlehem, the Palestinian town where Jesus Christ was believed to have been born, hundreds also defied Al-Qaeda threats to pack Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in Baghdad for Christmas mass.

Although there were no immediate reports of Christians being targeted in the Middle East, bombings in other parts of the world highlighted the threats facing believers.

A series of Christmas Eve church attacks and explosions left at least 38 people dead in two Nigerian cities, and at least six wounded in the Philippines.

The situation was especially tense in Jos in central Nigeria, long a hotspot of ethnic and religious friction. It was hit late Christmas Eve by seven explosions that killed 32 and injured 74, many as they were doing their Christmas shopping, police said.

In Maiduguri in northern Nigeria, suspected members of an Islamist sect that launched an uprising last year attacked three churches, leaving six people dead and one of the churches burnt down, an army spokesman said.

In the Philippines, a bomb in a church on Jolo island during Christmas mass wounded six. Officials would not immediately name any suspects but the island is a bastion of the Abu Sayyaf, a group linked to Al-Qaeda.

“May the love of ‘God-with-us’ grant perseverance to all those Christian communities enduring discrimination and persecution, and inspire political and religious leaders to be committed to full respect for the religious freedom of all,” the pope said in his Christmas Day message delivered at the Vatican.

In his Urbi et Orbi address, including greetings in 65 languages, Benedict called for respect for human rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan and an end to the turmoil in African troublespots.

He also rebuked the Communist rulers in Beijing for limitations placed on Christians living on the Chinese mainland.

But he reserved special mention for Christians living in fear in Iraq after 44 worshippers and two priests were killed in late October when Islamist militants laid siege to a church in Baghdad.

“May the comforting message of the coming of Emmanuel ease the pain and bring consolation amid their trials to the beloved Christian communities in Iraq and throughout the Middle East,” he said.

In Britain, the leader of the world’s Anglicans also urged people to remember those facing persecution because of their Christian faith.

“We may feel powerless to help; yet we should also know that people in such circumstances are strengthened simply by knowing they have not been forgotten,” said the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Although a relative easing of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians enabled more people to attend Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem this year, Benedict said the festivities marking Christ’s birth should focus attention on the need for peace.

“May the light of Christmas shine forth anew in the land where Jesus was born, and inspire Israelis and Palestinians to strive for a just and peaceful coexistence,” he said.

Bethlehem hosted a record number of Christmas pilgrims, with officials expecting the level to even surpass the 90,000 originally predicted by the Palestinian Authority.

In his midnight mass at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, the Middle East’s senior Catholic bishop, offered a message of solidarity to Iraqi Christians.

In Iraq itself, several hundred attended a Christmas Day service at Baghdad’s cathedral, surrounded by tight security, while a smaller number went to midnight masss at the city’s Saint Joseph church.

“Do not fear — that is the message today,” Father Saad Sirop Hanna, the head priest at the Chaldean Catholic church, told his congregation.

Christmas cheer was sorely tested in parts of Europe where freezing temperatures have caused transport chaos, with thousands of travellers forced to spend the night in trains or barracks, on ferries or in airports as the snow piled up.

The cold hampered some Christmas traditions like the annual swimming race in the lake in London’s Hyde Park which was called off after the water froze — although some hardy people could not resist a quick dip into the icy shallows.

Neither snow nor ice could stop a shining example of Christmas goodwill in Denmark where a midwife traveled more than six kilometres (nearly four miles) on skis to reach a woman in labour Christmas morning on the snow-blocked island of Bornholm.

The mother-to-be was finally able to be taken to a local hospital by the Danish army in the afternoon, where she was expected to give birth to a baby boy.

By Catherine Jouault